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Red-breasted Nuthatch

This tiny nuthatch is common across most of North America.

Normally a resident of fir and spruce forests, the Red-breasted Nuthatch wanders widely to the south during winter in some years. The Red-breasted Nuthatch’s more nasal voice, white eyeline, and red belly all help distinguish it from the widespread White-breasted Nuthatch.

Like other nuthatches, the Red-breasted Nuthatch is a cavity nester, and the male and female that make up a pair roost together at night in their cavity during the breeding season. They also apply sticky pine resin around the entrance to the cavity, perhaps to discourage predators.


Description of the Red-breasted Nuthatch


The Red-breasted Nuthatch is a small, short-tailed, long-billed songbird with bluish-gray upperparts, rusty-orange underparts, and a black line through the eye with a bold white eyeline above it.

Males have brighter orange underparts.  Length: 4 in.  Wingspan: 8 in.


Females have paler orange underparts.

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles are similar to adult females.


Red-breasted Nuthatches breed in coniferous forests, and winter in a wider variety of wooded areas, though they prefer conifers.


Red-breasted Nuthatches eat insects and seeds.


Red-breasted Nuthatches forage on tree trunks and branches.  They also visit bird feeders for sunflower seeds or suet.


Red-breasted Nuthatches breed across much of southern Canada and the western U.S., and winter over most of the U.S. The population has increased in recent years.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Wing Shape

The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.

Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History

Fun Facts

Red-breasted Nuthatches are irruptive in winter, being more common in some years than in others across much of their winter range.

Red-breasted Nuthatches often place sticky pine pitch around their nest cavity entrances, probably to deter predators such as snakes.


The song is a series of nasal calls rising in pitch. The call is a short, nasal note sounding like a tin horn.


Attract by offering suet or peanuts.


Similar Species

  • Other nuthatches lack extensively orange underparts and the white eyeline.

    White-breasted Nuthatch

    The White-breasted Nuthatch is more common in many areas but is larger and lacks the strong black line through the eye.



The nest is a foundation of moss, grass, and other soft materials placed in a cavity excavated in a dead stump.

Usually lay 5-6 eggs.

White with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 12 days, and leave the nest in another 15-20 days, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Red-breasted Nuthatch

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Red-breasted Nuthatch – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.




The red-breasted nuthatch is a happy, jolly little bird, surprisingly quick and agile in his motions, lie has the habit of progressing over the bark of trees like his larger relative, the whitebreast, but his tempo is much more rapid, and he extends his journeys more frequently to the smaller branches. Here he winds about the little twigs out to the end, among the pine needles, moving very fast: up, down, and around: changing his direction quickly and easily, seeming always in a hurry to scramble over the branches. He is more sociable, too, than the larger bird, and when a little company is feeding together they keep up a cheery chatter among themselves. We find them at their best when gathered in the northern forests at the close of summer. Then they give their high, tin-whistle note, kng, back and forth on all sorts of pitches, varying its inflection, ringing unheard of changes on this simple call, and when they are together thus, they use also a squealing note: a very high, nasal, little piglike or mouselike squeal: and a short explosive kick, or a rapid series of kicks. The effect of these notes, given by a dozen birds as they chase one another about, is very jolly. The little birds seem so happy, animated, and lively and their voices have such a range of expression that they almost talk: a playful gathering of talkative, irrepressible, woodland gnomes.

Spring and courtship: Cordelia J. Stanwood, of Ellsworth, Maine, noted (MS.) that a male bird she had watched during winter appeared with a mate in March. “Five years later,” she says, “another red-breasted nuthatch wintered at ‘the sign of the suet’, and he also selected a mate in March, and so that it would seem that Sitta canadensis chooses his helpmeet early in the season. However, even in years in which the birds winter here in goodly numbers, the nuthatches are not common until April or May. Then in their favorite evergreen woods their merry pipings fill the land. They tap all over each dead tree to find suitable nesting quarters. Undoubtedly they start nest holes in many trees before they find one that is exactly adapted to their needs. One season I followed for many days a pair that nested in a beautiful tract of mixed woodland. I saw them attempt to excavate a cavity in four or more trees before they found the site that best suited them.”

Ora W. Knight (1908) says: “I have quite good reasons for believing that they remain mated for more than one season and that mated birds remain in each others company all the year, rarely associating with others in flocks, while it is the young birds of the year, as yet unmated, that mingle in flocks with others of their kind as well as related species.”

Of the bird’s courtship apparently little is known. On one occasion I saw a hint of it. A male strutted before a female in a manner similar to the courting pose of the white-breasted nuthatch. The pose was maintained but a moment or so and was accompanied with some rapid chippering notes. It consisted of a spreading and lowering of the wings and a spreading of the tail. There was, too, I think, a slight bowing downward and forward of the whole body.

Gordon Boit Wellman (1933) records a courtship flight which he observed on April 6, 1932, in Sudbury, Mass. He says:

Mrs. Wellman and I were approaching the end of the garden, when a bird flew out of a red cedar and, with incredible speed, zigzagged through the hare limbs of a large old apple tree. After two or three circular turns in this erratic manner through the branches, it dived hack into the cedar. Neither of us, although we stood just in front of the tree, had the slightest idea what the bird was; immediately the flight was repeated, leaving us as much mystified as before. No eye could follow the tremendous speed and sharp turns; it seemed impossible that any bird could do it a second time and avoid striking the irregular branches of the apple tree. A third flight followed In 2 or 4 seconds and consisted of a shorter performance: this time the bird stopped suddenly on a small branch of the apple tree and we saw that it was a Red-breasted Nuthatch. Almost at once a second Sitta canadensis, a female, joined the first and the two began investigating boles in the old apple trees of the garden. During the flight there were no notes from the male; later, when the two birds were together, the usual call notes were given intermittently.

Nesting: The red-breasted nuthatch usually excavates a cavity for its nest in a rotten stub or branch of a dead tree. Sometimes, however, it makes use of an old woodpecker’s hole, and it has been known to breed in bird boxes.

Manly Hardy (1878) speaks thus of nests found in Maine:

[One] was in a white-birch stub some 10 feet from the gound; the entrance was 1½ inches wide by 1¼ deep. The hole ran slanting for 3 inches, and then straight down for 4 inches more. [Another nest] was in a poplar stub some 12 feet from the ground. Hole 1½ Inches by 1 inch, slanting down 4 inches, and then 4 inches straight down. * * * Near both the nests were other holes not so deep, probably used for one of the birds to occupy while the other is sitting, as is the case with most Woodpeckers. Both nests were composed of fine short grasses and roots. I notice that in making the hole the bird makes a circle of holes round a piece about as large as a 10-cent-piece, and then takes out the piece of bark entire. I have one nest which has near it a piece circled in this manner, but not removed.

Walter Bradford Barrows (1912) says: “It does not seem to restrict itself so closely as does the White-breast to the natural cavities of trees, but often, perhaps most often, makes use of a deserted woodpecker’s hole, in which it builds a nest of soft materials.”

Charles W. Michael (1934), pointing out “the difference in habits in the same species of bird in different sections of its nesting range,” says:

Here in Yosemite Valley it has been my experience that the Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) never occupy old nests of any sort. Each year the birds of a pair working in turn excavate a new nest-hole. Often they dig two, or three, or possibly four prospect holes before finally deciding on the one that is to be the nest-hole of the season. Most often they choose to work in the dead wood of a living cottonwood. The second choice of tree is the Kellogg oak, but I have also watched a pair of birds drill a nest-hole in the dead stub of a yellow pine. In one case the same pine stub was used two different seasons, but instead of using the old nest-hole, which appeared perfectly good, the birds quite ignored it and drilled out a fresh hole.

I have seen nests of the Red-breasted Nuthatch as low as 5 feet above the ground and as high as 40 feet from the ground. The average height of the nest-hole above the ground is probably close to 15 feet.

Henry S. Shaw, Jr. (1916), gives this account of a pair of birds that successfully reared a brood of young in a bird box at Dover, Mass.:

On April 10, I noticed a female Red-breast carrying nesting material Into one of my bird-boxes. This is a Berlepsch box, size No. 2, made by the Audubon Bird House Co., of Meriden, N. H. The entrance bole is 11/8 inches in diameter, and the box, which is made of yellow birch, is placed in a white birch tree about 7 feet from the ground. It was put up in the hope of attracting Chickadees.

I did not see the male Nuthatch at work until April 16, when I observed him carrying shreds of bark which he pulled from the trunks and limbs of red cedars (Juniperus virginiana) growing nearby. Examination of the box after the nesting season showed that the nest was composed exclusively of this material, the box being filled to within an inch or two of the level of the entrance-hole. The male usually left his load at the bole, without entering, and I suppose that the material was put in place by the female inside.

William L. G. Edson and R. E. Horsey (1920) report a similar nesting in Monroe County, N. Y., in a bird box “placed on an Electric-wire pole in the midst of thick hemlocks.”

It is an apparently invariable habit of the red-breasted nuthatch to smear with pitch the entrance of its nesting cavity. Ml the descriptions of nests mention this peculiarity, whether the nests are in hard wood, pines, or bird boxes. In the northern woods the birds use the pitch of the balsam fir and spruce; farther south they use the pitch of pine trees. The pitch as a rule is generously laid on, often all around the hole. In Mr. Shaws nest noted above the pitch was added progressively during the nesting season, and Thomas D. Burleigh (1921) says, writing of the bird in Montana “The birds continue to carry pitch to the entrance of the nest from the time the nest is first begun until the young have flown. * * * On June 16 I found a nest containing almost fully grown young that was but 2 feet from the ground in an old rotten stub and during the 15 minutes that I watched the birds they made seven trips to the nest, carrying each time not food but pitch which they carefully smeared on any wood that was exposed within several inches of the entrance.”

William Brewster (1938), writing of a nest found near Lake Umbagog, Maine, says: “This nest was finished today but contained no eggs and had but little pitch. Both birds, however, were there, and both were bringing pitch and plastered it on the bark below the hole. I watched them a long time. They brought it on the tips of their bills in little globules, alighted against the lower edge of the hole, and then tapped it on in various places as low as they could reach, but without shifting their foothold.” Of another nest in the same region he says: “Nest in red maple stub over water; tree very rotten; height about twenty feet; hole on west side about two feet from top. A quantity of pitch, which my guide pronounced unmistakably spruce, about the entrance and inside its tunnel. Stub standing in five feet of water twenty yards from the shore.”

W. Leon Dawson (1923) writes: “Canadian Nuthatches nest at any height, and their lack of consideration in this respect accounts for much of our relative ignorance. I located a nest, in Seattle, in a nearly limbless live fir tree, at a height of 120 feet. Obligations to a growing family forbade attention to details. On the other hand, a nest taken near Tacoma on the 8th of June, 1906, was found at a height of only 7 feet, in a small fir stump. * * * The wood of the last-named nesting stub was very rotten, and the eggs rested only 4 inches below the entrance. The nest-lining, in this instance, was a heavy mat an inch in thickness, and was composed of vegetable matter—wood fiber, soft grasses, etc. —without hair of any sort.”

Eggs: [AUTHOR’S NOTE: The red-breasted nuthatch lays ordinarily 4 to 7 eggs; probably 5 or 6 eggs make up the usual set. The eggs vary from ovate to rounded-ovate, and have very little or no gloss. The ground color is pure white, or more rarely pinkish white or creamy white. They are sometimes heavily and sometimes sparingly spotted, or finely dotted, with bright reddish brown, such as “ferruginous,” “hazel,” “cinnamon-rufous,” or “vinaceous,” and some darker shades of brown. As a rule they are very pretty eggs. The measurements of 50 eggs in the United States National Museum average 15.2 by 11.9 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 17.0 by 12.5, 15.2 by 12.7, 14.2 by 11.2, and 15.2 by 11.1 millimeters.]

Young: As with most young birds that spend their nest life hidden away in cavities, we know little of the development of nestling nuthatches. After their emergence, however, we note a rapid increase in strength and activity. Some years ago I watched four young birds that had left the nest  5 days before. They were in a white pine a hundred yards from the nest, and they moved about easily, sometimes hanging back-downward from the branches. They did not venture out to the ends of the twigs among the needles (as the parents (lid for food) but remained not far from the trunk. Although the young birds picked at the bark of the branches, I could not be sure that they gathered any food for themselves.

We get a hint of the rapidity of the development of very young nuthatches from the account of Florence K. Daley (1926), who reared in a cage some young birds from the time when they were “not more than a few days old” until they could care for themselves. She fed them on bread and milk, water, and “Song Restorer” and after 2 weeks was able to liberate them safely.

In the opinion of Cordelia J. Stanwood (MS.), who has studied the nesting of the bird extensively at Ellsworth, Maine, the young red-breasted nuthatches leave the nest 18 to 21 days after hatching. F. L. Burns (1921) gives the period of nestling life as 14 days or more, and the incubation period (1915) as 12 days.

Plumages: [AUTHOR’S NOTE: The natal down of the young red-breasted nuthatch is dark gray. In the juvenal plumage the sexes are distinguishable, the young males resembling the adult males and the young females resembling the adult females, but all the colors are duller. There are faint black edgings on the back, the black portions of the head are much duller, the white superciliary stripe, chin, and sides of the head are speckled with black, and the underparts are pinkish buff, deepening to pale cinnamon on the crissum.

A partial postjuvenal molt begins late in July, involving the contour plumage but not the wings and tail. This produces a first winter plumage which is practically adult, the back being a darker, bluish gray, the pileum (in the male) glossy black, the white portions of the head without black speckling, and the underparts more richly and deeply colored.

Adults have a complete postnuptial molt, mainly in July. There is no spring molt, but considerable wear and fading make the spring plumage almost as pale as that of the juvenal.]

Food: Waldo L. McAtee (1926a), summarizing our knowledge of the food of the red-breasted nuthatch, says: “Unfortunately we know very little about the food of this species. It is very fond of the seeds of pines, spruces, and the like, which it takes in lieu of the larger mast favored by the White-breast. The animal food is known to include beetles, hymenoptera, and spiders, and among forest pests it has been observed to feed on the ribbed pine borer (Rhagium lineatum). No doubt the Red-breast does its modicum of good to cornpensate for the tree seeds which it draws from a store which usually is superabundant.”

Ora Willis Knight (1908) speaks of the diet thus:

Their food consists of about the same run of insects’ eggs, insects and larvae as is eaten by the White-breasted species. They greatly relish the seeds of fir, spruce, and pine and in winter can generally be found feeding in a region where trees of these species have seeded abundantly the past season. They deftly pry open the scales of the cones, Insert their bills and obtain the seed. Maple seed are sometimes eaten by them. They will also eat bits of rotten apple, suck sap from the bleeding stumps of trees, take their share of bits of suet or meat exposed and on a pinch eat seed of dock and other weeds which protrude above the snow.

C. K. Averill, Jr. (1888), emphasizes their fondness for the seeds of the black spruce, writing: “In the Northern Adirondacks I noticed that the Red-bellied Nuthatches seemed to be feeding exclusively on the seeds of the black spruce. After that I watched them for a number of days, and although they were abundant, I did not see them feeding on anything else. Alighting on a bunch of cones at the extremity of a bough, the Nuthatch would insert its bill between the scales of a cone and draw out a seed. Then flying to a horizontal bough nearby it would detach the wing which adheres to each seed, letting it fall to the ground, swallow the seed, and fly back for another.”

Richard F. Miller (1914) describes the bird feeding in beds of giant ragweed during the fall migration in northeastern Philadelphia, Pa. He says: “A remarkable feature, to me, about the occurrence of this little Sitta here during that fall, was their habit of frequenting water courses fringed with dense growths of giant ragweeds (Ambrosia trifida), in which they sought food on the thick stems, petioles and leaves, often feeding close to the ground. I always regarded this nuthatch as a denizen of the forest and its occurrence in these weedy growths surprised me. They exhibited no fear as I entered the weeds, and if I kept quiet, they fed fearlessly within close proximity of me, often only a yard away.”

Edward H. Forbush (1929) states that they “fly off into the air after flying insects or search about in the long grass for them” and P. M. Silloway (1907) speaks thus of this habit: “The red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) at times acts like a real flycatcher. Just now one alighted on a tree-trunk near me, and while investigating the bark crevices, twice he flew out from the trunk, captured a flying insect dexterously in the air, and returned to his gleaning on the bole.”

Cordelia J. Stanwood (MS.) watched from a blind a pair feeding their young in the nest. She says: “They came and went constantly; sometimes caterpillars dangled from their beaks, at other times their bills bristled with crane-flies or moths. Once a bird carried in a large white grub, at another time the larvae of a spruce bud moth, and still again spruce bud moths themselves.”

William Brewster (1938), speaking of a nest in northern Maine, says: “Quite regularly at intervals varying from 10 to 15 minutes the male came to it with a bill full of insects: large, gauzy-winged Diptera they looked like.”

O. A. Stevens, of Fargo, N. Dak. (MS.), writes to Mr. Bent of his experiments in feeding a female nuthatch. He says: “To facilitate observations, I feed finely chopped nuts in a block on top of the window shelf. Three holes in the block allow comparisons of different foods. Black walnuts are by all means preferred, but peanuts are quite acceptable and constitute the usual fare. English walnuts and pecans rank high, the harder almonds and hazelnuts below peanuts. Curiously, the soft, oily Brazil nut, which would seem suitable, rates low. It is interesting that the birds adopt so readily foods that they could not have known before.

“In feeding, nuthatches are untidy, spearing into the supply and scattering the crumbs about. A striking feature of their feeding is that they never use their feet as chickadees do continually, but always wedge a large piece into some crack while they pick it to pieces. In one full day’s observation when sunflower seed, walnuts, and peanuts were available, I did not see this nuthatch take any sunflower seeds although the chickadees were taking them freely.”

Francis H. Allen (MS.) says: “On August 22, 1929, a warm, still day when flying insects were probably plentiful, I found many red-breasted nuthatches perched on the tops of spruce trees on Grand Manan and flying out and catching insects after the manner of flycatchers.” He saw one in West Roxbury, Mass., catching flies in October, once from an apple tree and then from the top of a larch. He also saw one flying frequently to the ground under a hemlock and back into the tree or a shrub, “where he evidently ate or disposed of what he had picked up. He was probably getting hemlock seeds, the tree being full of cones. He seemed to be making a business of getting his food in this way.”

Behavior: Besides scrambling over the trunks and branches of trees in the true nuthatch fashion, this little bird, as we have seen, makes excursions out into the air to capture flying insects, and not infrequently visits the ground where it hops about or bathes in a little pool of rain-water or melted snow. Theed Pearce, in a note to Mr. Bent, mentions “a habit, when perched on a small branch, of flirting or wagging its tail and back part of its body from side to side. This was seen on March 23, and so suggests a form of display.”

Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1913) describes thus the behavior of five birds which alighted on a steamship:

Five of this species, one adult, the others immature, came on hoard the steamer in a fog and remained on board two days. They were extremely tame and crept about the deck, and on the ropes and spars, sometimes within a few inches of the passengers. One alighted on the coat-collar of a sailor as he was lighting his pipe, and another on my shoulder as I stood on the bridge. I put my hand near the adult Nuthatch on the rail and he picked at my finger; then he flew into the captain’s cabin and gathered insects from the window. There were many small dead moths on board that seemed to be particularly relished. I noticed two Nuthatches on the chains of the smoke stack undisturbed by the constant vibrations, and, what is still more surprising, by the deafening steam fog-horn that was blown at frequent intervals within a few feet of them.

The habit of flying straight into the nest hole is mentioned by two observers: Charles W. Michael (1934) says: “‘When feeding small young the parent nuthatch dives on the wing directly into the nest-hole,” and William Brewster (1938) remarks: “She usually flew in, without so much as touching her feet to the edge of the hole.”

William Brewster (1886) speaks thus of the bird in the Black Mountains of North Carolina in summer: “In the balsams of the Black Mountains, from about 5,000 feet to the top of the main ridge (6,000 feet), this Nuthatch was more abundant than I have ever seen it elsewhere. Whenever I stopped to listen or look around its whining, nasal call was sure to be one of the first sounds that came to my ears, and often three or four different birds would be heard at once. They were usually invisible: high in the tops of the matted evergreens, but I occasionally caught sight of one hanging head downward at the end of a branch, or winding up the main stem of the tree.” Walter B. Barrows (1912) calls attention to the bird’s habit of storing seeds ”in the punctures made by the Sapsucker in various species of trees.”

Francis H. Allen watched 14 of these nuthatches moving in and out of the conifers near his house, in September, of which he (MS.) says: “At first I saw one perched on the tiptop of each of two neighboring Norway spruces. They kept up a constant piping and flicked their wings continually: that is, partly spread them. Later others appeared and all performed likewise. When they flew from tree to tree, it was with an irregular flight. This was probably a species of mock courtship.”

Francis Zirrer (MS.) writes to us: “At the feeding table they fight and angrily chase one another away. They are great hoarders, which trait occasionally leads to amusing incidents. The woodpeckers, especially the hairy, watch the hoarding with interest, and, as soon as the nuthatch leaves to get another piece, fly to the place and appropriate the morsel. This lasts sometimes for quite a while until the little bird gets wise and flies away scolding.”

Voice: Of the two commonest notes of the red-breasted nuthatch one is a short, faint little note, heard only when the bird is near. It is suggested by the word hit, pronounced emphatically in a whispered voice, and is used, apparently, as a conversational note, exchanged between a pair of birds or among the members of a flock. To my ear it is indistinguishable from the corresponding note of the whitebreast. The other commonly heard note is a far-carrying, nasal cry with the quality of a blast on a tiny tin trumpet. This note varies greatly in length, sometimes being drawn out into a long whine; it may be repeated in a very rapid series, or delivered in a slow, regular, deliberate measure. Often written yna, although kng suggests the nasal quality better, it corresponds evidently to the sharply pronounced kank of the whitebreast. The other notes of the bird, and there are many of them (see below), may be regarded, perhaps, as variants, uttered under different stresses of emotion, from these two main themes.

The question as to what is the song of the red-breasted nuthatch has been ably considered and convincingly answered by Francis H. Allen (1932). He says:

As the true song of the Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) seems not to be generally known and never to have been fully described in the books, it seems worth while to put on record In “The Auk” as adequate a description as I can give of the song as I have heard it this spring of 1932. I have heard the song many times between March 27 and May 14 of this year from a bird near my house in West Roxbury, as well as on two occasions from two other birds in other places in eastern Massachusetts. The song when I first heard it (March 27) was so strongly suggestive of that of the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis carolinensis), yet so different in tone, that though I could not at the time follow up the bird to identify it, I had little doubt that it was a Red-breasted Nuthatch. On April 6 I heard the song again and was then able to connect it definitely with Sitta camadensis, for I saw the bird in the act of singing. After that and up to the lime when the bird left us, presumably for his breeding-haunts farther north, I heard the song frequently, and I never had any difficulty in distinguishing it from that of its white-breasted cousin, which I also heard nearby not infrequently. The song resembles the familiar wa-wa-wa-wa, etc., or what-what-what-what, etc., of the other species, but it is more rapid and higher-pitched and possesses a reedy quality unlike the smooth, liquid tone of the other.

And he adds: “To my ears the note repeated is not at all the familiar ‘nasal hank’ of the call-note but a much softer note that is not particularly nasal.”

Aretas A. Saunders (MS.) speaks of the song thus: “Only once have I heard anything from this bird that one could call a song. At Flathead Lake, Mont., July 1914, a bird called, day after day, a long yaaaaa yaaaaa yaaaaa, just like its usual voice in quality, but much prolonged, usually three yaas in succession, and then a short pause. The sound was so persistent that it became monotonous and almost irritating. I found the bird sitting on a twig beside a stub with a hole in it (apparently its nest), with its head up in the attitude of song as it called.”

Harrison F. Lewis (MS.) sends to Mr. Bent the following comprehensive list of the notes he has heard the bird utter: “(1) The common, well-known yna yna, yna, yna. (2) Zeee, zeee, zeee; zeee, zeee, zeee, like the notes of a katydid. This is used by the male when scolding an intruder near the nest, and when chasing a rival. (3) Biddy-biddy-biddy-biddy, etc., the notes being run off quite fast in long series, with brief pauses between the series. This is also a scolding note of the male. (4) A long trill, like the song of a toad. This was uttered by the male when chasing his mate. (5) A loud, prolonged twitter. This was uttered by the male while near his mate. (6) A fine it, it, it, it, etc. I have recorded this for the female only. (7) An inquiring little eh? eh? eh? This was uttered by both sexes when I was offering them suet, and they were near me, but were not quite sure whether or not they should trust me. (8) A peep, peep, peep, etc., like the note of a young bird begging for food. This was uttered by the female, when she, with fluttering wings, sat on a limb near where the male was eating suet, but I could not see that either bird paid any particular attention to the other at this time. (9) A true song, which I have heard but once, viz, about 6 o’clock on the morning of March 26, 1920, near Quebec, P. Q. It consisted of the ordinary loud yna, yna, given very fast in short series, or runs, almost trills. It was much like the early morning singing of the chipping sparrow, the notes being uttered about as rapidly in each brief series, and the individual series being of about the same length, but the intervals between the series were a little longer in the case of the nuthatch. Singing continued for 2 or 3 minutes, while another red-breasted nuthatch twittered excitedly in a nearby tree.”

Bradford Torrey (1904), in this pretty passage, lets us hear, through his ears, the sound of the nuthatches’ voice in a New Hampshire forest: “There is seldom a minute when, if I pause to listen, I cannot hear from one direction or another the quaint, homely, twangy, countryfled, yet to me always agreeable voice of Canadian nuthatches. At frequent intervals one or two come near enough so that I see them creeping about over the trees, bodies bent, heads down, always in search of a mouthful, yet keeping up, every one, his share of the universal chorus.” And later: “On all sides the little nuthatches were calling to each other in their quaint childish treble.”

Field marks: The red-breasted nuthatch is a trim, stylish-looking little bird; the dark line through the eye adds a distinction to its appearance that the whitebreast lacks; the blue-gray, black, and tawny coloring makes a pleasing artistic combination, and the diminutive tail supplies a piquant effect.

Enemies: Although this nuthatch is exposed to the vicissitudes that beset most small birds, it is an abundant and widely spread species. Doubtless its quickness and agility as well as the protection that thick evergreen growth affords render it comparatively safe.

Joe T. Marshall, Jr. (1942), lists a red-breasted nuthatch as having been found in a pellet of the spotted owl.

Fall and winter: As autumn draws near, those of us who live near the Atlantic seaboard to the south of the Canadian forests are on the alert to detect the earliest sign that the red-breasted nuthatches have left their northern homes and are on their way to visit us. For in any year they may move southward in fall, or they may elect to remain in the north through the winter, their movements depending, apparently, on the state of the cone crop. We begin to look and listen for them early in August and, if it is to be a nuthatch year, we have not long to wait before we hear the little trumpet call and see the tiny birds romping and rollicking through the woodlands.

They are very common near the seacoast, especially during the early days of the flight. I remember that Dr. Charles W. Townsend and I found many of them in 1923 gathered in the little patches of pitch pines scattered among the Ipswich sandhills, and William Brewster (1906) speaks of them on their first arrival as occurring “on barren points or islands along the seacoast, where they may be started in beds of beach grass or watched climbing over the surfaces of lichen-covered boulders and cliffs.”

William Dutcher (1906) gives an account of an extensive flight in New York State thus:

During a vacation spent on Fire Island Beach, New York, in September, a remarkable migration of these birds was observed. Point o’ Woods is a cottage settlement, on the barrier beach, at this point about 1,000 feet wide, between the ocean and Great South Bay, which is here eight miles wide.. The soil is sand-covered with a rank growth of weeds of various kinds, low bushes, scrub-oaks and small pines. On the night of September 20, it was very damp, with a moderate southwest wind and a number of showers. On the morning of the 21st the wind still continued southwest, very moderate, with a temperature of 74° at 7 a.m. During the night there must have been a great flight of Red-breasted Nuthatches, for they were seen on the morning of the 21st in large numbers. They remained all that day, although there seemed to be a steady movement to the west, which here is the autumn direction of migration. During the night of the 21st, we had more showers, and on the 22d, the wind was strong southeast, with some rain. There was a large migration of small birds during the night, as the bushes were full of Towhees, Cuckoos and Kingbirds, and the Red-breasted Nuthatches were more numerous than the day before. They outnumbered the sum total of all the other small migrants. On the 23d, large numbers of them still were in evidence, but not so many as on the 22d, and on the 24th only a few were seen.

The flight covered three days—2lst to 23d—while on the 24th the stragglers brought up the rear, a lone laggard being seen on the 25th. At the height of the migration, Nuthatches were seen everywhere, —on the buildings, on trees, bushes, and weeds and even on the ground. They were remarkably tame and would permit a near approach; if, the observer were seated they would come within a few feet of him. They crept over the roofs and sides of the houses, examining the crevices between the shingles; they searched under the cornices on the piazzas and in fact looked into every nook and corner that might be the hiding-place of insects.

Every tree had its Nuthatch occupant, while many of them evidently found food even on the bushes and larger weeds. On a large abandoned fish factory at least 50 of these birds were seen at one time. The proprietor of one of the hotels told me that five of the birds were in his building catching flies, they having come in through the open doors and windows.

L. B. Potter (MS.) thus writes to Mr. Bent of a conspicuous flight in western Canada: “In the fall of 1919 in this district [of Eastend, extreme southwestern Saskatchewan] I witnessed a most remarkable invasion of red-breasted nuthatches. The little birds could be seen anywhere and everywhere, outside and inside farm buildings, among the sage brush in open country, as well as in the woods.”

Swales and Taverner (1907) report the bird very common in the fall of 1906. They say: “September 1 to 3 they were common at Point Pelee, and still more so from the 15th to the 22d, and October 15 vast numbers were seen there. They were everywhere, in the hard woods, hanging head downwards from the tips of the long branches, in the orchards, creeping over the trunks, and in the red cedar thickets; but by far the largest numbers were towards the end of the Point on the edge of a waste clearing where every dead and dry mullen stalk had several of their little blue forms upon it. There seemed to be hundreds in sight at one time.”

Winton Weydemeyer (1933) speaks of the winter range of the bird in Montana thus:

My observations on the range of the Red-breasted Nuthatch in winter have been limited to Lincoln County; but over the rest of the adjoining area described above its habits are probably similar. In winters when the birds occur as commonly as in summer, they may be found locally in all the forest types which they frequent during the breeding, season, showing the same preference for fir-larch woods In the Transition zone and heavily-forested high valleys and basins in the Canadian zone. During winters when most of the nuthatches have migrated from the region, a few remain throughout the season in the Hudsonian and upper Canadian zones, even when they are entirely absent from the Transition and Canadian zone forests of the lower valleys and foothills.


Range: Central Canada to southern United States. The range appears to be divided into two discontinuous regions, as from Saskatchewan to Texas it occurs only as a migrant or stray. It is a bird of the coniferous forests, and it is possible that this gap between the two ranges may be bridged in the northern forest from which no records are at present available, since it occurs as an uncommon migrant through southern Saskatchewan.

Breeding range: In the west the species ranges north to southern Alaska (Chitina Moraine and Skagway, probably breeding); Yukon (junction of the Pelly and Lewes Rivers, and Squanya Lake); southern Mackenzie (Fort Simpson). East to southern Mackenzie (Fort Simpson), Alberta (McMurray and Camrose); and south through the mountains to eastern Wyoming (Laramie); Colorado (Breckenridge and Fort Garland); and southeastern Arizona (White Mountains, Mount Graham, and the Santa Catalina Mountains). South to southeastern Arizona (Stata Catalina Mountains); and California (Bear Lake and Point Pinos); West to California (Bear Lake and Point Pinos) and northward through the Sierra-Nevada and Cascades of Oregon and Washington to British Columbia (Kispiox and Atlin); and Alaska (Chitina Moraine).

The eastern range is north to Manitoba (Echimamish River and Knee Lake); central Ontario (Moose Factory); Quebec (Godbout and the Mingan Islands); and Newfoundland (Cape St. George and possibly St. Anthony). East to Newfoundland (possibly St. Anthony); Massachusetts (Gloucester and Canton); New York (Orient, Adirondack and Catskill Mountains); and south through the mountains to North Carolina (Roan Mountain and Mount Mitchell). South to North Carolina (Mount Mitchell), and Tennessee (Cosby Knob); northeastern Ohio (Mentor); northern Michigan (Wequetonsing and Douglas Lake); and Wisconsin (Pine Lake). West to Wisconsin (Pine Lake and Perkinstown); Minnesota (Duluth and Clear Lake); and Manitoba (Elk Island, Lake Winnipeg, and Echimamish River).

Winter range: The species sometimes occurs in winter almost as far north as it breeds. It winters fairly regularly north to southern British Columbia (Vancouver Island and Okanagan Lake); Saskatchewan (one in December at Cumberland Lake); Manitoba (Lake St. Martin and Winnipeg); Quebec (Montreal and Godbout); and Nova Scotia (Antigonish). East to Nova Scotia (Antigonish) and the Atlantic coast States to North Carolina (Raleigh). South to North Carolina (Raleigh); Tennessee (Chattanooga and Memphis); casually northern Florida (Fernandina and Pensacola); rarely Louisiana (Monroe and Bienville); Texas (San Antonio, Knickerbocker and El Paso); New Mexico (Carlsbad); and southern California (Redlands and Santa Barbara). West to California (Santa Barbara and Redlands) and the Pacific coast to British Columbia (Vancouver Island).

Spring migration: Late dates of spring departure from the winter home are: Georgia: Dalton, April 28. Mississippi: Bay St. Louis, April 1. Texas: San Antonio, March 25. North Carolina: Raleigh, April 25. Virginia: Lynchburg, April 30. District of Columbia: Washington, May 20. Tennessee: Nashville, May 14. Kentucky: Bowling Green, May 4. Ohio: Oberlin, May 29. Indiana: Notre Dame, May 23. Illinois: Chicago, May 15. Missouri: St. Louis, May 18. lowa: Keokuk, May 13. Kansas: Topeka, May 3. Nebraska: Omaha, May 8.

Early dates of spring arrival are: Massachusetts: Amherst, March 28. Vermont: Burlington, March 27. Maine: Ellsworth, March 15. New Brunswick: Scotch Lake, April 1. Quebec: Cap Tourmente, April 28. Ohio: Cleveland, March 1. Ontario: London, March 14. Indiana: Indianapolis, March 7. Michigan: Grand Rapids, March 13. Iowa: Iowa City, March 12. Wisconsin: Madison, March 26. Minnesota: Minneapolis, March 26. South Dakota: Yankton, April 14. North Dakota: Fargo, April 28. Colorado: Denver, March 10. Wyoming: Laramie, May 2. Montana: Missoula, March 24. Oregon: Pinehurst, March 2. Washington: Tacoma, April 10. Manitoba: Aweme, May 6. Saskatchewan: Regina, April 30. Alberta: Glenevis, April 15. Mackenzie: Fort Simpson, April 17. Alaska: Egg Harbor, May 17.

Fall migration: Late dates of fall departure are: Alberta: Glenevis, October 10. Saskatchewan: Eastend, October 1. Manitoba: Aweme, November 27. Washington: Pullman, October 2. Oregon: Portland, November 17. Montana: Fortine, October 26. Wyoming: Laramie, October 20. Colorado: Walden, October 4. North Dakota: Fargo, October 25. South Dakota: Aberdeen, October 29. Minnesota: Minneapolis, October 29. Wisconsin: Racine, November 15. Iowa: Cedar Falls, November 18. Ontario: Guelph, November 15. Michigan: Sault Ste. Marie, November 11. Quebec: Montreal, October 8. Nova Scotia: Sable Island, November 5. Maine: Unity, November 28. Massachusetts: Marthas Vineyard, November 13.

Early dates of fall arrival are: Wisconsin: Madison, August 28. Nebraska: Lincoln, September 4. Kansas: Manhattan, October 4. Iowa: National, September 9. Missouri: St. Louis, September 4. Illinois: Glen Ellyn, August 29. Indiana: Indianapolis, September 15. Kentucky: Lexington, September 17. Tennessee: Nashville, October 7. Ohio: Canton, August 29. District of Columbia: Washington, August 22. Virginia: Salem, October 1. North Carolina: Chapel Hill, October 4. Georgia: Atlanta, October 11. Alabama: Greensboro, October 4. Florida: Fernandina, November 1.

Casual records: One was observed near Churchill, Manitoba, on August 4, 1934; Bermuda Islands, a specimen was taken previous to 1884. On Guadalupe Island, Baja California, there is a small resident colony, quite isolated from other breeding areas, as it has never been recorded on the mainland of Baja California.

Egg dates: California: 10 records, May 13 to June 13. Maine: 14 records, May 20 to June 21.

Nova Scotia: 7 records, May 5 to June 5.

Washington: 14 records, April 30 to June 25.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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